By Julianne Malveaux
Congress is on fire to balance the federal budget, and they don’t care who they take as prisoners in the process. There are at least two proposals to freeze federal salaries for yet another year (they have been frozen since 2011), and to continue to demonize federal workers as do-nothing folks who don’t need raises. Meanwhile, President Obama has asked for a minimal half percent a year increase while many in the private sector are seeing wages rise. Of course, everyone is struggling with unemployment rates rising to 8.2 percent. Still, it is onerous that federal employees seem to be bearing the brunt of this budget crisis.
It is even worse when we understand that African Americans make up 17.4 percent of the federal workforce, compared to 10.1 percent of the civilian labor force. Of course, the higher the pay grade, the fewer African Americans. Whatever the pay grade, it is clear that African Americans are far more likely to get proportional pay in the federal government than in the private sector. Thus, proposals to cut federal pay disproportionately affect African Americans. Somebody could perhaps argue that cuts are race neutral, but I’m not buying. The fact is that the federal government has been most open to African American workers, and most willing to offer relatively equal pay.
Too many would like to characterize government workers as ineffective without looking at the fact that most federal government and private workers do their jobs and then some. Everybody can tell trifling somebody-done-me-wrong songs, but the real deal is most works do their best. Those members of Congress that target federal workers ought to look long at hard and the results they get form the folks who process Social Security checks, manage veterans’ benefits, move money from the federal government to state and local governments, and manage the process. These folks need kudos not the killing remarks that suggest that they don’t earn their money.
It’s a rough job market and many, including federal employees, make the choice to take pay freezes instead of looking for other work. Are we losing some of our best employees, though, when we impose a freeze for the third year in a row? It may be hard for some others to sympathize with folks who have steady and well-paid employment, but at the same time, who wants to work without appreciation or a raise? Does our Congress cut off our nose to spite our face by targeting federal employees?
As a CEO, I’ve had to preside over the difficult task of imposing pay freezes and hoping that my staff would understand that frozen pay is better than no pay or layoffs. At the same time, I shudder when I think that our federal government cannot appreciate, even in a small way, those who keep our trains running, our balls in the air, our elders compensated, our work done. Half a percent is a small amount, and it hits those at the bottom, not the top. How can Congress push to maintain Bush tax cuts, but fail to raise wages for federal employees.
There are two reasons that I am passionate about this. First, although many federal workers earn more than $150,000 a year, too many, mostly Black women, are at the GS-1 to GS-4 level, earning less than $40,000 annually. These women raise families, send children to school and overcome odds. They need a raise. They aren’t going to get it from a Congress that demonizes government workers, and that is a tragedy. Secondly, African Americans are more likely to get fair treatment from a civil service system than from the ordinary labor market, and it seems that this is a reason that some legislators seem to go after government employees.
While Congress must be prudent about our budget, they shouldn’t take it out of the hide of government workers, especially those at the very bottom. There is no fairness in freezing government salaries while other salaries rise.
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.
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